”I like drinking a beer with a view of a turret,” my partner said. ”You almost expect an arrow to come flying past your nose. This makes the beer taste better.”
The turret in question belonged to the sprawling set of medieval and baroque buildings that makes up the Thurn and Taxis princely palace in Regensburg – home to the world’s third youngest billionaire. We were relaxing in the beer garden of the royal Brauhaus, drinking the dark brew that has long been brewed on the premises in princely, copper vats. The beer was, like the family, slightly nutty but with an unexpectedly sophisticated finish.
The idea that the Windsors personify everything foreigners find quaint about England and therefore function as, if nothing else, a handy tourist magnet, could equally be applied to the Thurn and Taxis family in Regensburg, the historic Bavarian town on the Danube.
Even without the family, Regensburg, having survived World War II largely unscathed and having an eventful history going back to the Roman period of Marcus Aurelius, is well-endowed with attractions for the visitor. Gothic architecture dominates the old town – which many people say is the best preserved in the country – with a cathedral to match Europe’s grandest.
It also has a slight Mediterranean feel, owing to the chattering nightlife in the cafes that clog the town’s narrow alleys. The ancient stone bridge, the Steinerne Brucke, built between 1135 and 1146, is breathtaking at sunset.
That’s all well and good, of course, but there is nothing like some local toffs to stamp personality on a town. To those of us who come from relatively young nations – in our case Australia – the notion of inherited titles, status and wealth that can be traced back to the Middle Ages seems ridiculous and, so, we tend to see them as endearing anachronisms.
Like the vestigial human tailbone, they are a healthy reminder of our origins; everybody, after all, needs an arse to sit on.
The Thurn and Taxis family’s laudable distinction is that it did something extremely useful; it invented the postal system. In one of those innovations that seems obvious in retrospect, Franz von Taxis established mail stations that meant letters could be passed on to fresh riders and horses, which kept things moving without the need for rest and meal breaks. This slashed the delivery time from Innsbruck to Brussels to 5 1/2 days in 1490 and won the family the first ever postal monopoly, which survived until Napoleon invaded.
I’d heard of Thurn and Taxis years ago from the American writer Thomas Pynchon’s zany novel The Crying of Lot 49, in which a Californian housewife stumbles upon what appears to be an underground postal system operating in defiance of the US Federal Post monopoly.
This conspiracy, called the Tristero, has its roots in reformation Europe, where it battled the Thurn and Taxis monopoly by dressing up as black assassins and slaughtering postal couriers. The housewife starts to see the Tristero’s sign – the image of a postal horn with a mute plugged in its bell – all over California, but the reader is left wondering if she isn’t perhaps paranoid and delusional.
Galvanised by the romantic idea of stumbling upon a conspiracy myself, or at least of being paranoid and delusional, I dragged my partner – who didn’t find the idea of postal history in the least romantic, given we were in Regensburg for our fifth anniversary – to a tour of the palace’s state rooms and museum.
The state rooms were grand and bewildering. The silver room, in which literally everything is made from an alloy that includes a small percentage of silver, looked rather as if Berlin’s legion of graffiti artists were each issued a chrome spraycan and a gas mask and given free rein to bomb the room until not an inch of original colour was left. Then there was the mirror room, built for a particularly narcissistic princess. And the prominence given to a bronzed billy goat in one of the bedrooms set a new standard for aristocratic eccentricity.
In the museum, I found, lo and behold, a gold and silver post horn, the old symbol of the Thurn and Taxis family’s postal system, on display in a glass cabinet. It also emerged that the princes had traditionally belonged to a shadowy, Mason-like organisation called the Order of the Golden Fleece – the symbol for which, represented in a diamond and gold brooch in the museum’s jewellery collection, looked like a deboned goat hanging in an abattoir.
These were dim prospects for a Pynchonesque historical conspiracy. In fact, the real sign of Thurn and Taxis these days is its corporate logo, which can be found all over Regensburg. The family matriarch, Gloria von Thurn and Taxis, was once known for her wild partying and Cyndi Lauper-style hairdos. But after her husband Prince Johannes, who was even wilder than she though considerably older, died in 1990, she modernised the family fortune and made its crumbling assets profitable.
Thanks to her, the young Prince Albert, who is 24 and studying in Edinburgh, owns a secure €1.5 billion fortune instead of a bunch of decaying castles. The Thurn and Taxis logo around town is actually a sign of quality. The beer is superb and a serving of the dumplings in custard at the Thurn and Taxis knödel restaurant near Rathausplatz is a must for the visitor.
Even the hotel we stayed at, the Hotel Orphee, in a baroque building that used to be a brewery, had Thurn and Taxis’ tentacles wrapped gently around it. When the charming hotel manager, named Annette, showed us around the hotel, she explained the family owned the building. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at this news.
”They own a lot of things in Regensburg,” I said.
”Mmm,” she replied. ”And not just in Regensburg.”
So it would seem. The late Prince Johannes, once asked how many castles he owned, looked genuinely puzzled, turned to an aide and said, ”I’m not sure. Is it 20 or 21?”
Getting there and where to stay
The ICE train from Berlin takes about 5 hours and requires a change at Nuremberg. From Munich it is a quick 1.5 hours by train. We stayed at the Hotel Orphee, which has double rooms starting a €150 and is very beautiful and atmospheric. The Hotel Münchner Hof has rooms starting at €75, but is correspondingly short on charm.